In one word: Clever
Accolades have poured in for this book: nominated for a number of literary awards, Good Morning America Book Club selection, picked as a “book of the year” on numerous lists (including Barack Obama’s), and the “one book one community read” for my local book club. The last accolade is what swayed me to pick it up as I’m a loyal participant of the library book club. I was hesitant because we read Bennett’s “The Mothers” four years ago and I did NOT like that book (though it was well-received). I give an author at least two tries before putting them in a “not for me” bucket and I’m glad I have that standard because I really liked this book.
Two light-skinned twin sisters grow up in a small “can’t be found on a map” Louisiana town, similar to many small towns across America but unique in that most of this black community is light-skinned. After running away as teens to try to begin a new and better life in New Orleans, they go their separate ways when Stella leaves Desiree, with no explanation. Years pass and when we next see Desiree she is returning to Mallard with her young daughter Jude, running from a dark-skinned and abusive husband. At the same time, we learn that Stella is married and living in California but since abandoning her sister has chosen to pass as white, leaving behind everything in her previous life. This story jumps in time from the twins’ teen years, to them as adults, and also jumps from their experiences to those of their daughters, Jude and Kennedy. This is a story about identity and obligation and what it meant (and means) to be black in America.
There is also an interesting plot development where Jude begins a relationship with a transgender man Reese, which provides a thought-provoking parallel to the experience of passing as white and the experience of undergoing a gender transformation, and what this does both to your own definition of self and relationships to those around you.
I went back and forth on my rating for this book and landed on giving it a solid four. It was easy to read and had clever characters and compelling storytelling, but she covered a LOT of ground (identity, trauma, abuse, race, transgender, family dynamics, Alzheimer’s) and felt shallow in some respects. I would have rathered fewer big ideas and more depth.
As I mentioned I really didn’t like “The Mothers” and have thought more about that experience. I had some issues with some of her plot choices, but also its worth mentioning that I listened to the audio version of “The Mothers,” so it could that consuming it in written form would have given me a different experience. My friend who listened to “The Vanishing Half” liked it less than I did and found it difficult to follow with the jumps in time. I flipped back and forth in each new part to situate myself with where we were in the story, and who we were following, so my recommendation if you plan to read either is to stay away from the audio versions of these books.